Oscar voters: Alfre Woodard talks membership, diversity
When Alfre Woodard was nominated for her Oscar back in 1984 for her supporting role in the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings biopic "Cross Creek," she had no idea who voted for her or what the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences was all about. She only joined the elite organization after her nomination because it was the polite thing to do.
"I said yea because it seemed rude to say no," quipped Woodard during a phone interview.
But over the years, the African American actress has become an active member of the organization, often serving on the executive committee of the actors branch that chooses its new members. And though Woodard is in the minority in her own branch -- which is 88% white and 59% male -- she is actively trying to change that through recruitment and engagement with people she works with in the industry.
"All of us who have served on the nominating committee -- and it rotates -- [look] for young people that might fit the rigorous criteria for becoming an academy member," said Woodard. "Actors work all the time on different sets of movies, and we take it seriously. It's going to take time for [diversity] to show up, but we are actively underway."
Woodard has served as something of a spokeswoman for the academy recently, participating in interviews with "NBC Nightly News" after the L.A. Times published a story exploring the demographics of the academy. Though she is optimistic that changes will be made to the predominantly white, male academy, she says she's realistic about the pace of such change -- and of the limits of the organization.
Each branch of the academy has its own membership rules, but all branches became stricter in 2003 when the academy decided to curtail the growth of the organization to 30 members a year on top of replacing those who leave the organization because of retirement, resignation or death. Now an actor must have three feature credits, and a producer needs the equivalent of two producing credits.
“What we are looking for needs to happen somewhere other than the academy. What has complicated the situation are the specific requirements needed for membership," said Woodard. "You can’t make allowances.”
So Woodard has been doing her little part to honor her fellow black actresses, while the academy and the industry catch up to the country in terms of diversity.
For the last three years, beginning with the nominations of Viola Davis for "Doubt" and Taraji Henson for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," Woodard has hosted her own Oscar dinner for all the black women who have been nominated for Academy Awards and, she said, "in a perfect world all of those that should have been," such as actresses S. Epatha Merkerson and C.C.H. Pounder.
“I do it to celebrate the fact that we all exist and we are here,” said Woodard.
Photo credit: Alfre Woodard at the Black Women on Film panel discussion at the 2003 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Credit: Evan Agostini / Getty Images